How to Develop Leadership in 2 Simple Steps (Part 1)

The previous post focused on how leadership is not innate, but rather developed, nurtured and practiced. So how do we do that? Welcome to “How to Develop Leadership In 2 Simple Steps.” I’ll devote a post to each step.

Today, Step One: Talk.

Community organizations’ staff need to devote significant time to frequently have one-to-one conversations with member-leaders about the organization and about their participation as individuals within the organization. If you want the organization to be truly grassroots, this needs to be one of your top priorities.

In these conversations, several things are happening:

  • The relationship is being deepened through trust.
  • You get to understand leaders’ dreams, vision and motivations and how they complement those of other leaders in the organization.
  • You are developing communication channels for transparency.
  • The weight of difficult decisions is shared among many shoulders.

I can’t think of a single significant struggle as a community organizer or director that benefitted from me being stuck in my head as a lone wolf problem-solver. Every time, talking with members made the difference, regardless of the issue. Funding. Low participation. Interpersonal conflicts. Campaign strategy. Media strategy. Threats made against the organization. Everything. Having these one-to-one conversations about difficult issues means that when folks come together in a meeting, everyone is much more prepared to tackle the problem at a deep level. This means that folks are not just being consulted or “checked-in-with” but rather are equipped and prepared to lead the discussion and the crafting of the solutions. They are developing leadership by being in the thick of the hard work of organization-building, and, through having a nuanced understanding of how the organization works, grow to trust it deeply and are more likely to stick with the organization in difficult times.

Besides problem solving, it’s important to regularly have one-to-one conversations focused on leaders and members thoughtfully evaluating their leadership. We’ll often start with some pretty broad questions, like:

  • Who in the organization do you most look up to as a leader? Why? What do they do that you want to do?
  • Where do you want the organization to be at the end of this year? Where do you want to be? What do you want to have accomplished?

To help guide the conversation, I bring a single sheet of paper with a checklist of ways, specific to our organization, that one can take leadership: from neighborhood outreach to being on a national leadership team for a major direct action; from facilitating a meeting to mentoring a new member. Together we look at what they’ve already done and what they’d like to learn how to do. The list is not exhaustive and if the member has totally different ideas about the kind of leadership they’d like to take that’s great—this is an opportunity for them to reflect on their gifts and passions and how they can use them in service to the movement. That’s how Cristina, one of Fuerza Laboral’s co-founders, became the director of our Mobile Theater Brigade which traveled around the state and even performed at some national conferences, using theater as a popular education tool for community organizing. She had the passion; the organization gave her the platform.

Remember: members and leaders of the organization are not “your” members or “your” leaders. You are partners in building a better world. So talk like partners, and share both the work and the dreams.

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